One of the NHL's most controversial and maligned officials, Tim Peel, is done refereeing games at the NHL level. This much was announced Wednesday morning, just hours after Peel was caught on a hot mic admitting to handing out a bogus penalty while working a game.
During Tuesday night's Red Wings-Predators game in Nashville, Peel didn't realize his microphone was on and could be heard saying he "wanted to get" a penalty against the Preds.
"It wasn't much but I wanted to get a f---in' penalty against Nashville early in the..." Peel could be heard saying over the air before FOX Sports Nashville's broadcast cut to commercial.
It remains unknown why Peel went out of his way to penalize Nashville despite little provocation, but "game management" and make-up calls from officials are nothing new to the NHL. It's recognized (and often expected) as part of the game, but rarely is there ever any hard evidence proving that a referee committed to calling a game unfairly.
Tuesday's incident in Nashville was the exception, and it was damning enough that the NHL couldn't overlook it. Peel's admission was enough of the black eye that league swiftly announced he would "no longer be working NHL games now or in the future."
"Nothing is more important than ensuring the integrity of our game," NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell said in a statement released Wednesday. "Tim Peel's conduct is in direct contradiction to the adherence to that cornerstone principle that we demand of our officials and that our fans, players, coaches and all those associated with our game expect and deserve.
"There is no justification for his comments, no matter the context or his intention, and the National Hockey League will take any and all steps necessary to protect the integrity our game."
While this seems like a surprisingly strong (though entirely appropriate) action from a league that doesn't often hold officials accountable in a public forum, it can also be argued that it's not quite as harsh as it appears on the surface. Peel, 53, was set to retire from officiating at the end of this season anyway, so his dismissal only expedites his departure about a month early. No where in the NHL's statement does it say that Peel was "fired" or "terminated" or anything of the like. Just that he won't work any additional games.
Some will view Peel's dismissal as the league feigning a moral stance while guiding him out the door slightly earlier than expected. Others will say that it's an adequate response that to the situation and the league's statement could serve as a warning shot to other officials who may find themselves in a similar set of circumstances moving forward.
Regardless of which camp you reside in, the next set of questions should be rather obvious: Where does the league go from here? Will this change anything? Would Peel have even gotten in trouble had he not been caught on a live mic? (I think we can all probably answer that last one.)
Again, "game management" has long been accepted as part of hockey. Many times we've seen one team get hosed on a penalty call (or non-call), only to be conveniently gifted a make-up call shortly thereafter. But why do we accept this as common practice? And, perhaps a better question, why are officials allowed to double-down on bad officiating without being held accountable by the league?
It's easy enough to look past this behavior and say it's just part of the game, but the NHL does have an opportunity to use this latest incident as a catalyst for meaningful change. The league could save a little face here by committing to accountability and transparency when it comes to on-ice officiating.
What might that look like? Well, for starters, the NHL could look at what the NBA does with its "Last Two Minute Reports." When it comes to those reports, the NBA investigates and analyzes the quality of officiating decisions toward the end of close games, and they release those findings to the public -- openly conveying when refs get things right or wrong.
The NHL could implement a similar system in which the league offices examine officiating decisions in each game and release reports on where things were called correctly or incorrectly. And before you rush to grab your pitchforks, that doesn't necessarily mean the league has to fine or suspend officials every time they get something wrong. There's a human element to officiating and the job is harder than most of us realize, especially in a game as fast as hockey.
But, at the very least, such a system would offer transparency to teams and fans and help the league keep receipts on the behavior of its officials. The NHL has been plagued by a number of major controversial officiating decisions in recent years -- many of them coming in highly consequential postseason situations when there seems to be a different (read: much more lenient) rulebook in place. Rarely has the league gone out of its way to publicly provide clarification or a consistent response to these controversies.
There also exists a strong lack of direct accountability and communication from the officials themselves. The NHL are almost never made available to the media after games, even in situations where an officiating decision may have had a significant impact on the game. The league occasionally directing officials to answer questions from reporters could also offer a channel of clarification and accountability.
There's also the chance that implementing this sort of system would also help create a greater general understanding of the ways certain penalties are called (or not called) on the ice as well. There tends to be a lot of discretion when it comes to how officials call minors and majors, particularly in instances of boarding, charging and targeting hits. If the league and its officials consistently make efforts to explain where they're coming from, the gray areas could be painted more black and white.
The Peel incident should serve as a bit of an awakening for how protected NHL officials are, even when it's generally acknowledged that they sometimes get things wrong on purpose, and how we're only promised accountability when a microphone is accidentally switched on. If nothing else, having the NHL commit to simply acknowledging when an official performs poorly would be a step in the right direction.